Music: A choirgirl confesses all

Barking mad or not, Tori Amos can whip up a crowd with a heady mix of musical virtuosity and intimate revelation. James McNair bears witness

Whether she's waxing lyrical about sexual relations with God or making anthropomorphic claims about her piano (it masturbates, apparently), Tori Amos'ss penchant for sexually-charged soundbites sometimes gets in the way. Dissenters claim that her absolutely-barking persona is contrived, but true or not, this scarcely matters when one takes this chanteuse's live performances at face value. Amos is obviously a phenomenally gifted musician and songwriter, and despite the personal tragedy of a miscarriage 18 months ago, her career curve is still rising. Perhaps it's time to shelve those Kate Bush comparisons for good.

Tonight's set drew heavily on the From The Choirgirl Hotel album, a record in which Amos does occasionally address the loss of her baby, though typically, never from a victim's perspective. Sitting sandwiched between her piano and synthesiser, and often playing with one hand on each, she looked like a sexier version of the archetypal prog-rock keyboard- wizard. There was no cape a la Rick Wakeman, though; just a little black T-shirt and some tight-fitting combat trousers.

People tend to either love or hate Amos's bump and grind routine with her grand piano. Whichever side you're on, though, you'd have to concede that she's one of the few ivory-ticklers whose personality is simply too big to be hemmed in by the instrument's leaden mass. Legs akimbo, she bounced exuberantly during "Cornflake Girl", while the haughty hair-tossing during the intricate middle-section of "Spark" might have been the legacy of youthful days spent getting to grips with Rachmaninov.

Five songs were played before Tori said a word to the audience, and consequently we were all ears when she did stop to chat. Before her solo rendition of "Winter" - wonderfully fragile, the vocal poised and pregnant - she announced that her folks were in the audience. She went on to recount how disappointed her Methodist Minister father had been when, some years back, she'd told him that she was dating a cat-burglar. "Dad and I were on different sides of the religious fence then, but now he's a liberal, which is fantastic," she concluded.

Despite this being the penultimate night of her British tour, there was no hint of fatigue in Amos's voice. Indeed, her vocal performances were quite superb; packed with drama and full of those breathy, idiosyncratic inflections which fans love, but her critics find overly emotive. With Tori's dextrous stranglehold on the arrangements leaving little melodic space, guitarist Steve Caton's role was primarily one of textural support. Conversely, drummer Matt Chamberlain had plenty of room for rhythmic manoeuvre, and it was surprising just how much groove he and bass player Jon Evans were able to inject into Tori's more classical flourishes. Occasionally though, the set's preponderance of mid-tempo songs weighed-heavily. This was eventually remedied by the rapid four-on-the-floor stomp of "Raspberry Swirl", a fitting crescendo which found Tori using short gasps of breath as an extra percussion instrument.

If imagining your parents having sex is the ultimate gross-out, then by extension, watching your daughter making love to a piano in front of 4,000 people must be a little unnerving, too. The Royal Albert Hall audience loved it, but one wondered if the Reverend Amos occasionally had to cough and lower his eyes.

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